Idina Menzel. There have been more social media posts about her Times Square performance than were people watching her live in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. “You could hear it coming.” “It was cold out!” “She’s lost her talent.” “She’s a bad role model.” “Give her a break!!”
These are not my words. I have an opinion on the situation, but I’ve learned my lesson about posting such reviews on social media.
I’m not interested in falling down the rabbit hole of Ms. Menzel’s vocal issues. This time. Rather, let’s use the experience as a way of focusing our attention on a larger conversation: vocal health on Broadway and beyond. You may recall a preamble to this blog post, written over a year ago (read it here). Let’s consider this my New Year’s resolution to follow through on what I started last year.
And follow through I shall. Over the last several months, I have interviewed singing actors who have had active careers on Broadway, regionally, and on cruise ships. I’ve also talked to musical directors, casting directors, writers and ENTs (Ear, Nose & Throat doctors) to get their thoughts on whose responsibility it is to keep the singing actor healthy for a rigorous performance schedule.
Here’s what I’ll say from the onset, which I suspect my interviews will suggest: it’s everyone’s responsibility. It has to be a communal effort. As I outlined in my popular screlting blogs, the writer must know the limitations of the voice and the singer must know how to translate songs into their own technique. And musical directors, casting directors and ENTs? They have to carefully advise the singer, helping them to make the necessary smart choices to sustain a long and hopefully glorious career on the stage.
And since I’m making predictions, let me add this to the heap: this is not going to be a witch hunt. No blaming Idina, or this producer, or Actor’s Equity. That doesn’t interest me. What I desire (and what I’ve thankfully been having) is an honest conversation about how we can solve an issue that I believe is quickly becoming pandemic to our community. Vocal damage is not nor should it ever be a regular part of someone’s career. This blog series seeks to show how vocal issues are currently handled in New York, regionally in the United States, and abroad in London and Australia, and see what we might learn from each other. The idea is to get educated so we can help our students or help ourselves. Let’s begin.
I am incredibly grateful to several singing actors, who have freely shared their experiences for our benefit. I asked each of them five questions, which I’ll split up between two posts.
Have you or any of your colleagues had vocal issues during the run a show? If so, how was the issue resolved?
Darius de Haas: Yes, I’ve been in a show who where colleagues have experienced vocal distress. It’s a trickier thing with the voice. In some ways voice technique and upkeep is such a subjective things and there are so many elements that come into play: is it a pop/rock, operatic musical, legit? The demands of each thing are very different and specific.
In general, when someone had some sort of vocal distress, often they would go to the ENT and, if necessary, were put on vocal rest. If you’re the lead of the show and the weight of the show is on your shoulders, that’s very difficult. Sometimes, in those cases, they’re given prednisone (a steroid that temporarily reduces swelling). However, because the vocal chords are so delicate, it’s very dependent on technique.
Kevin Massey: Yes, I’ve had to deal with some vocal issues as I think many people have. Something might crop up over a long run (over 6-8 months) where I’ve been singing the same style and material without much variety elsewhere. In one instance, I felt something in a certain part of my range and asked my musical director and others if they heard what I was feeling. While the MD, didn’t hear it, my wife did notice a little. I figured out how to adjust my technique to resolve it. However, a number of years later, something similar cropped up in another long run. After a visit to the ENT, we realized it was acid reflux related and were able to resolve it soon. The performing and resulting eating schedule we have as performers is not conducive to avoiding reflux! I feel fortunate to have been cast in roles that I can sing healthily. It takes work to keep up technique, and I can tell when I am slacking. However, this business is a long road and it pays off to take care of yourself!
Ta’Rea Campbell: Yes. Last year, I was out on tour starring in a major role. The role was very demanding and incredibly exhausting so I had my share of vocal issues. Specifically, we performed in New Orleans and, due to Hurricane Katrina, the entire city was filled with residual mold. I have never in my life experienced an allergy to mold before so when I arrived at the theater and instantly became effected by the air I was completely shocked. My voice closed up and was severely dry. I did my normal warm up in my hotel room, cardio at the gym, neti pot and facial steaming, but to no avail. I started the show and couldn’t hit notes that I normally could. It was devastating and terrifying because entire sections of my voice were missing. There was no clear indicator of which notes I would be able to hit. Various parts of my range were compromised. Ultimately, I had to call out of the show at intermission, which is always a tough decision to make (not to mention ego-slamming). It is incredibly hard to realize and accept that some things are out of your control. At the end of the day, everyone is always supportive and encouraging. “Do what’s best for you”. You are not a robot, Ta’Rea!” But the challenge is to not let those feelings of failure creep into your brain. I’m human and am still working on that.
Jason Forbach: Yes. Sometimes people are just sick and there’s nothing they can do. I used to always think at the top of the show if you could do the whole thing or not. I prided myself on a very strong work ethic. Then, there was a moment performing in the first act of Les Miserables on tour when I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sing Act II, where I had a solo line with a sustained high A. I felt terrible because you’re not only putting the swing on the spot, you’re putting sound, wardrobe and dressers through a massive overhaul. You have to be respectful of your colleagues. There was no ill will, but as a colleague you want to be as accommodating as you can. I’ve experienced a wide range of responses to calling out. And I’ve been an understudy before too, so I know both sides of it.
I had bad allergies the entire three years of touring – flying, hotels, old theaters. Sometimes if you’re operating at 60% or 80%, that’s a good day. You’re never at 100% health. You had a bad meal at the airport. There’s something in the air vent at a hotel. There’s no way around it. You just have to do the best you can and hope your technique will help carry you through.
There are some people that would crash and burn under the pressure of such a heavy singing show like Les Miserables. And work accommodates for some of that, but not most of it. There was one girl who had a lot of vocal issues, and she did the best she could, but after calling out so many times, her colleagues knew of her issues and she wasn’t granted an audition for other things if there wasn’t a cover for the role. Very often people don’t realize their behavior in the moment can either get them or lose the next job. And it will almost always be from someone who’s watching that you don’t even know is paying attention.
Roberto Araujo: Yes, I’ve had vocal issues during a run. Earlier this year I had a micro nodule on my right vocal chord caused by over rehearsing during my contract on
a Costa Cruises ship. 9 shows in 48 hours! No one should ever be put through that. If anyone ever sees themselves in that situation, they should put their health and instrument first.
The issue was solved with rest, but not until I finished my contract with Costa Cruises. During my contract I was ordered by my ENT only to sing one of the three shows done a day and lip-synch to my own voice the rest of the shows. It helped, but I could still feel and hear the damage. It was one of the scariest and most frustrating experiences of my life.
Mamie Parris: Last year I was in the middle of a five show weekend of Most Happy Fella following a five day tech tour de force at a major regional theatre. With a show as demanding as that, it’s a wonder any of us still had our voices. I do think that in the end, the greatest responsibility for maintaining vocal health falls upon the performer. After all, we know our voices best. That being said, we’re being asked to stretch ourselves to the limit more and more now, by composers, producers, and theaters on a budget.
Have you ever been cast in something that wasn’t vocally right for you? If so, how did you cope with that?
Darius de Haas: At the time, in some ways, some of the parts in RENT I covered weren’t actually vocally right for me. I sang them well enough for me. Doing Angel was fine, and Benny. The role of Collins was challenging because it was so low.
I’ve worked with a voice teacher who’s classically based, and it has really saved me. Even when I was singing things that got me off my axis, I had enough in my training with him to get me back on. I’ve never suffered major vocal stress or damage because I always knew where my good strong spot was.
The “good thing” is at least you know going into the show what’s going to be demanded to you. That you’ll have to live like a monk and follow very good habits (what you eat, how much you talk, what you do outside the show, etc…). It’s a real discipline.
Also, I find as I get older, I have to rethink how to approach stuff. You can’t approach it the same way you did when you were 25 years old. That’s hard for a lot of singers to incorporate if they dont’ have a good vocal discipline. You have to really learn what that is for yourself and take the time to rethink all the things you did so you can continue to sing into your 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s. Everyone has to retool how they do certain things.
Kevin Massey: I’ve been very close to being cast in a number of things that were not completely comfortable vocally for me. For the Queen musical We Will Rock You, they flew me and a handful of other people out to Vegas to audition, which never usually happens. After singing one of the main songs, one of the creatives said to me, “It sounds quite nice. It’s actually quite riveting,…but it sounds like it needs to hurt more.” And I thought, “Oh my gosh, how do I do that? Do I want to do that?” If I had gotten the job, I would have had to find my own way to make it sound like it “hurts more.” But in the end, I realized I might have dodged a bullet.
I’m not willing to damage my voice for a role. Over the years, I’ve found what makes my sound unique and have tried to protect that as much as possible. I’ve learned to stretch myself, and I’ve learned my limitations. For instance, while I can sing in a number of different styles, I wouldn’t consider myself a “thrasher” rock singer. There are others who can tear it up in that way, make it sound like it “hurts”, and sound amazing. However, if I need help capturing certain styles, sometimes I’ll take it to a teacher and find out how to do it in a healthy way. Most of the time I just self-regulate.
Ta’Rea Campbell: My first Broadway show was being a swing in Little Shop of Horrors and vocally it was hard. Often times a swing is hired and allowed to sing the same voice part no matter which role they go on for. That was not the case with this production because each woman I covered was a part of a tight three-part harmony. Also each woman was hired for their very distinct style of singing. Styles of singing that did not match my own. As a young performer, I had not yet realized that it was important for me to sing the notes “in” the song and not sing the notes “as” the person I am covering.
Please check back for Part II of this series in Early February! We look forward to sharing more with you then!
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